July 24

On this day in 1520 Henri Estienne, the elder, died. It is not known when he was first established as a printer, but about 1496, just twenty-six years after the first press came to France, his name begins to appear on scholarly books. During his lifetime, he published over one hundred of these, all of them in Latin, none being printed in the vernacular. Thus was begun one of the great houses of printing, to remain in one family for almost one hundred and fifty years. The name Estienne has frequently been latinized to Stephanus and even more to the plain English Stephens.

The founder of the house is reputed to have been a man of noble birth who became alienated from his parents when he became excited about the new art of printing. The difficulties encountered by printers in the early years were innumerable, particularly in France, where the Faculty of the Sorbonne dominated the printing of books. The family of Estienne was for many years to suffer persecution at the hands of this body which questioned what it thought to be heretical tendencies. Possibly the elder Estienne incurred doubts when he asked Jacques Le Fevre to act as one of the press correctors. Le Fevre is known as the teacher of Calvin, and while his intellectual merits were recognized, his faith was open to question. But for François I, who interceded for him, his life would have been in jeopardy. The king was increasingly involved in such controversies, as his liberal views brought him into conflict with the Theological Doctors who with the influence of the Papacy eventually prevailed over the royal opinions.

However Estienne’s obvious talents as a scholarly printer brought him a great deal of work from the University of Paris, whose coat of arms he used as a device. The famous Estienne press mark of the olive tree was not to be used until his son Robert became proprietor of the press after his father’s death. Henri’s standards built his reputation, but they were sometimes beyond the capabilities of even the brilliant men he used to read his texts. The celebrated German humanist, Beatus Rhenanus, friend and biographer of Eramus, was discharged by Estienne for permitting errors to pass his eye. The printer argued that his imprint should be a guarantee for a trustworthy text and that any typographical error would discredit him as a publisher.

Upon the death of the founder of the firm, his foreman Simon de Colines became the guardian of his children and his executor. Colines, who was a fine printer, married the widow and to use the expression of Estienne’s biographer, Mark Pattison, “afin de s’eviter I’embarras d’une liquidation.” Robert Estienne, who was seventeen years of age when his father died and who was to become the most celebrated printer of his family, received his early training from his father. He was immeasurably helped by Colines who had the scholarly attributes so necessary in classical printing.

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